2026 World Cup Format Approved; Includes 12 Groups for North American Tournament

Joseph Zucker@@JosephZuckerFeatured Columnist IVMarch 14, 2023

LUSAIL CITY, QATAR - DECEMBER 18: Lionel Messi of Argentina and team lift trophy after winning the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Final match between Argentina and France at Lusail Stadium on December 18, 2022 in Lusail City, Qatar. (Photo by Richard Sellers/Getty Images)
Richard Sellers/Getty Images

Get ready for a 48-team World Cup in 2026.

On Tuesday, the FIFA Council formally approved expanding the men's World Cup beginning with the next tournament. The format will see the countries split into 12 groups of four with a total of 104 matches staged between the group stage and knockout rounds.

B/R Football @brfootball

FIFA approves World Cup format for 2026:<br><br>▪️ 104 games<br>▪️ 48 teams<br>▪️ 12 groups of 4, 3 games played<br>▪️ 8 maximum games (up from 7)<br>▪️ Top 2 teams in each group plus 8 best 3rd-placed sides advance <a href="https://t.co/2uHLLOC7Eo">pic.twitter.com/2uHLLOC7Eo</a>

The step was widely expected to be an inevitability as soon as then-UEFA President Michel Platini floated the idea of a 40-team World Cup in 2013. By 2017, the FIFA Council signed off on the broad structure of an expansion to 48 teams.

It's not as if this will be the first time the World Cup field as grown. The event looks a lot different than it did generations ago. The first World Cup in 1930 had just 13 representatives, and the 32-team format only dates back to 1998.

As the quality of soccer improves around the world, opening the door for more countries outside of South America and Europe—traditionally the two strongest continents—makes plenty of sense.

Still, plenty of critics will contend more isn't necessarily better when it comes to the World Cup.

Miguel Delaney @MiguelDelaney

2026 World Cup a preposterous 104 matches with 12 groups of four.<br><br>The most irritating thing is it's never going back as nobody is ever voting for fewer places for fear of missing out.<br><br>A 32-team tournament was perfect.

Josh Challies @Challies11

All for World Cup expansion, some of the continents are massively under represented, but a format where over half the third-placed teams progress just feels off.<br><br>32 teams progressing from 48 is weird

FIFA is removing some of the drama that stems from seeing marquee teams either struggling to qualify for the tournament or advance out of the group.

Neither the Netherlands nor the United States made the cut in 2018, while four-time world champion Italy failed to punch its ticket for Qatar during the last cycle. Now, traditional heavyweights in their respective regions will have an even lower bar to clear.

Adding 16 more teams is likely to create more one-sided outcomes in the group stage and perhaps even in the round of 32 as well, because the gulf widens between the best and worst in the field.

Regardless of whether you like it or not, a 48-team World Cup is the new normal.